How to grow aviation and cut carbon

Simon Jenkins recently wrote in The Guardian that, when it came to Heathrow expansion, Boris Johnson had dropped his assertion of “f**k business” for “f**k west London”. Simon has a right to his opinion, but if we’re serious about saving the planet, he’s missing the bigger picture. Today, as governments everywhere grapple with the challenge of maintaining economic growth whilst tackling climate change, we have in the UK an opportunity to demonstrate how innovative thinking and bold leadership can deliver a low carbon future.

People are on the move across the globe, this year more than 4.6 billion journeys will be made by plane. The “average citizen” flies once every 22 months now, compared to once every 43 months 18 years ago. Without growth at hub airports like Heathrow we will only add flights to our airspace, by moving passengers to Paris, Amsterdam or other hubs before continuing their onward journey.

Some broadsheet columnists say the UK should turn its back on aviation to reduce carbon, but we could achieve much more by using what we learn at Heathrow, under the UK’s strict planning regime, to influence the world.

In the United States the busiest airlines represent nearly a fifth of total global air traffic with 632 million passengers or 18.6% of the total. China is second with 555 million passengers, whilst the UK journeys represent just 4.3% of the total. Countries like China are meeting this huge demand by building 234 airports in the next 15 years. Asia is experiencing tremendous growth with new low-cost carriers putting travel within reach of burgeoning middle-class populations.

Yes, it is great news for connectivity and prosperity, but it is taking place against a backdrop of global climate change and major questions on how to tackle it.

The UK has taken significant unilateral steps with a commitment to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. But, for many this just isn’t good enough. Some will continue to call for the cancelling of projects like Heathrow’s new runway, or even rationing the number of times we can fly each year.

But would such unilateral action make any real difference? It won’t’ stop China building its 234 new airports. The UK accounts for just 1% of global carbon emissions, a miniscule amount when compared to the giants of China and the USA. Without international cooperation, draconian measures at a UK level won’t make the slightest difference.

The challenge is to manage this demand in a responsible way – across the world – and meet our ambitious carbon reduction targets. Thankfully, the answer lies nearer to home than many would think.

Necessity drives invention. Heathrow airport has been bursting at the seams whilst waiting for the go-ahead for expansion and it has had to innovate within these constraints to stay ahead of its continental rivals. To tackle the problem of noise it looked at how it could do things differently – with smarter management of its airspace, by incentivising landing slots for quieter aircraft, better management of landing gear and by experimenting with more efficient angles of ascent and descent. Innovation has made a difference, it has reduced the noise envelope around the airport by 90% since the 1970s, whilst capacity has doubled.

Politicians should set tough targets on air quality, carbon emissions and noise at all UK airports, as the forthcoming Development Consent Order (the planning permission) will for Heathrow. By doing so aircraft manufacturers, airlines, and airports will be forced to innovate, and that’s where Britain’s experience can play a unique role and help guide others. Cars, trucks, and buses in the UK are changing, with carbon emissions planned to reach zero by 2040 as we move away from petrol and diesel engines.

This move to innovate would never have happened if governments hadn’t brought in legislation that has forced us to change behaviours.Airports, led by Heathrow must go further through the introduction of public transport infrastructure, ultra-low emissions for cars that travel there and a huge scaling up of consolidation of cargo vehicles which transport goods for export.

The biggest innovation will need to be in aircraft technology, with the introduction of electric planes. Already small aircraft capable of carrying a handful of passengers are being tested and Norway has plans to upscale to an all-electric domestic fleet by 2040. The right constraints on Heathrow’s planning permission for growth will help develop its reward to airlines of £1 million pounds for the first electric planes to land at the airport. And like the revolution in the UK car industry, we should not ignore developments in hybrid and aviation biofuel technology.

Our experience, knowledge, and intelligent solutions can be our gift to the wider world. Exporting low carbon technology solutions to Beijing, Delhi and Jakarta isn’t just an opportunity, it’s our responsibility.But without the expansion of Heathrow, the imperative to develop these solutions is dimmed. That’s not a good look, for west London or the rest of the world, Simon.

Parmjit Dhanda
Executive Director
Back Heathrow